#traditions

La Sportellina – a Tuscan traditional Easter cake

The season of Lent in the old days, was by precept a time of fasting and repentance, so people would resort to homemade products only. It was a common and very heartfelt religious tradition, especially in the countryside. Most of the peasant families’ meals consisted of soups, polenta, lots of vegetables form their own farm or just some homemade bread and freshly picked herbs. Adding a pilchard in oil every now and then was a real delicacy that not all could afford. So no wonder on Easter, people would indulge on abundant dishes and plenty of meat, generously soaked by a glass or two of good wine!

The food preparations usually began during the Holy Week before Easter, because everything had to be produced in great quantities, to be shared with families and neighbors as a symbol of gratitude and celebration.

As a child, I remember a great buzz around here, of people going up and down the town’s alleys from early morning until sunset. I could tell Easter was coming just by raising the nose and sniffing the air: suddenly I was engulfed with the sweetest smell of aniseed and freshly baked cake, that used to come from the town’s wood-fired oven. Yes, because at that time, there were no household appliances and not everyone could afford to have their own oven. So during the Easter rush, when women used to prepare lots of oven-baked goods, they had to run up and down the main street with their kneaded doughs to reach the town’s oven when their turn came. Imagine that oven working day and night to bake hundreds of pans of traditional delicacies, which they would take back home once baked. Of course the smell that filled the air back then, was astonishing!

I bet now you’re pretty curious about what actually did they bake, right?! Well, here in Tuscany, we have a special sweet tradition, called “la Sportellina” or “schiacciata di Pasqua” (literally the Easter squashed bread). It’s quite a funny name for a cake that looks anything but squashed, I know! But actually the name comes from the great amount of eggs that need to be cracked (squashed) into the batter.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake

You see, the connection between ancient traditions and nature is always amazing, because once again nothing is random: at the beginning of the spring season, hens used to lay more eggs than usual, and they had to be consumed pretty fast, since there were no special storing procedures like nowadays. So this Easter cake – like most of this season’s cakes and dishes – was just the perfect way to consume quite a few eggs.

As I said, our mothers and grandmas used to prepare this traditional cake in large quantities, during the Holy Week. It would take a lot of work and patience to make this recipe, due to the rising and baking times, which were very long. Imagine they had to knead and allow the dough to rise, again and again for no less than 5 times, before baking it! That’s another one of the reasons why these cakes were being made in large quantities. Some pieces were then being wrapped and given to the family’s guests and neighbors, others were being offered to the church, to be served on the way out, after the Holy Mass on Easter day, and a few were being left for breakfast in the days after.

In our days, when everything seems so rushed and we’re always in a hurry, it’s hard to think of dealing with such a long and delicate preparation and of course we all know you can easily find it at the supermarket. What you don’t know is the feeling you get when you dip your hands into that dough and start kneading. You take that moment just for yourself, to clear your mind and let your thoughts run free, while the sweet smell of aniseed and mint liqueur fill your nostrils enough to take you back to your childhood days. It doesn’t matter how long it will take, it’ll all be worth it when you see that precious little piece of dough come up and become brown, making you feel proud for once again having kept the tradition alive.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake-buona-pasqua

The Sportellina Recipe:

1,5 kg 00 flour

50 gr. brewer’s yeast

150 ml milk

7 eggs (plus 1 to brush the surface)

450 gr. sugar

110 gr. extravirgin olive oil

50 gr. butter

50 gr. mint liqueur

50 gr. maraschino

15 gr. aniseed

1 orange (zest and juice)

First of all dissolve the brewer’s yeast into the warm milk, then gradually add in some flour (about 300-400 grams) and start mixing until well incorporated. Knead it into a ball and put it in a bowl to rest for about 2 hours.

After two hours, mix in 3 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr. of olive oil and another 400 grams of flour. Then let it rest again, in a warm place until it doubles the volume (this time will take about three hours).

For the third step, add in 2 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr of olive oil, 25 gr of mint liqueur, 25 gr. of maraschino and again 400 gr. of flour. Knead it again until all ingredients are well combined and leave it to rest for another 3 hours.

Finally, mix in the rest of the ingredients and knead it for a while, then give it a final 3 hours rest again.

Divide the batter into 3 equal parts and put them into the baking moulds (we use the same ones as for Panettone). Put the moulds in a warm place covered, and let them rise for 4-5 hours, or until the double their volume.

Brush the top of the cakes with the beaten egg and then bake in a preheated oven at 180° C for about 50 minutes, or until the surface becomes brown. Leave them in the oven to rest for 10 more minutes and then let them cool completely before serving.

You can keep the cakes in a plastic bag, in a cool dry place for up to one week, so you can actually bake more pieces and offer them to family and friends as an Easter gift, or you can just have a wonderful breakfast everyday for a whole week! Enjoy!

The Tuscan Raw Ham & other childhood memories

As I’m sitting by the fireplace sipping my coffee, watching some shy snowflakes dancing in the air, like trying to figure out which is the best place to lay down on, my mind goes back in time, to the same period in the old days when I was a child, living in the countryside with my family.

Late winter was usually some sort of a break, a stasis during which Nature had less to offer and farmers didn’t have much work to handle on the fields. The sun was often veiled by a thick blanket of clouds, and because of the bad weather, even the farm’s animals preferred to hole up inside their stables.

And so it seems that our ancient Tuscan tradition decreed this to be the best time for domestic slaughtering, as it required the coldest weather for best preserving the great amount of meat that had to be handled during the butchering, since there were no big storage cellars back then, as we see today.

In the countryside, money didn’t come first: farmers would work hard everyday to make a living. Everything was seen as a precious resource and the community spirit was strongly felt, as neighbors were often the only workforce farmers could count on, other than their families. Their precious help and hard work was always rewarded with food, wine and of course a hand when needed.

Pig slaughtering was an important moment for the community and a family feast, so everyone would gather to give a hand, because they all knew that after a long day of intensive labor, would follow an evening of generous pork treats and good wine; and we do have to say that back then, it was the only time of the year when people would afford to indulge on such a great amount of meat.

tuscan-raw-ham-cured-meats

Pork meat has always been a valuable asset in our culinary tradition, because nothing ever got wasted, not even the smallest and apparently most insignificant part of it. After being properly processed by the butcher, it turned into a year’s supply for the farming families, and a precious bargaining chip for other goods or services.

Based on Nature’s course, our farmers followed a precise sequence for consuming the products obtained from their animal. Everything was based on seasonality so the goods that were eaten first were those which needed less time for preparation and aging, like jowl and pork belly.

tuscan-raw-cured-meats

In Tuscany, we have a wide range of fine cured meats and other pork products of excellency, but when we think of pork, the first thing that comes to mind is the PDO Tuscan Raw Ham (Prosciutto Crudo Toscano DOP). This dry cured aged raw ham – probably the best in the world – is the flagship product of the Tuscan area, together with the Tuscan Pecorino Cheese and the Chianti Wine. So precious that in older times, it was the last pork product to be consumed: often up to one year later. The finest delicacy farmers had and which they were often jealous about. I remember that “opening” the Prosciutto was a convivial moment, a feast where friends and families were invited to share this delicacy, but only because the first part of the hind leg had a little too much fat around, before getting to the finest savory, chewy bites of pure raw ham; however, that doesn’t mean it was less tasty.

tuscan-raw-ham

Originated with the most ancient traditions, the Tuscan Raw Ham is not to be confused with the similar Raw Ham of Parma and San Daniele. The process may seem quite the same, but the distinct flavor and the characteristic chewy, almost buttery and salty taste of the Tuscan PDO Raw Ham, are unmistakable, as it’s directly related to the local aromatics and customs, as well as the geographical area’s temperatures and humidity.

The Tuscan Raw Ham gets its typical salty taste form… well salt of course. But it’s not the quantity of salt that’s important, rather than the aging time and the particular environment with the right level of humidity, where the meat is being held and cured. It’s a secular tradition, that dates back in Medieval times, when farmers used to cure the hind legs with fennel seeds that grew wild along the Tuscan fields, together with sea salt to preserve the meat. More recently, juniper, garlic and pepper have been added to the recipe, but still it depends on each family’s tradition and customs that have been passed down through generations.

raw-ham-salted-tuscan

For what I can remember, my father used to rub the pork hind legs with a garlic and pepper pomade and leave them on a wooden table for a while – up to 20 days – then he would wash the pomade away with vinegar, and after an accurate drying, he would rub the part without the rind again with plenty of salt and pepper, to prevent flies from wasting the meat.

In my family, nothing was being wasted, so when the ham was over, the bones were used to flavor the more simple peasant dishes, like the Tuscan bread soup or the beans soup, but before doing that, my mother always used to preserve some marrow in a small jar inside the fridge. It was her secret medicine for when me and my brothers would come back home with bumps and bruises… a little scrub on the spot and the pain would disappear. Now you think that’s funny, but I tell you it made a miracle medicine back then.

And talking about childhood memories, the best “merenda” (snack) we ever had as kids – and that we’re still greedy about to this day – was the very popular “panino col pane sciabo e prosciutto” (the Tuscan unsalted white bread and raw ham sandwich). Yes, because nothing is random: the typical Tuscan unsalted white bread makes the perfect match with the salty Tuscan Raw Ham, as it brings out the very best of this fine cured meat’s taste. Imagine eating a salted piece of bread with an even saltier piece of raw ham, or Pecorino aged cheese… it’s all been figured out since ages, no wonder our culinary matches are known worldwide!

L’Olio Novo

The Tuscan Green Gold, from the farm to the fork!

Autumn isn’t only about roasting chestnuts and sipping red wine by the fireplace. There’s pretty little time to just sit around, when living in the Tuscan countryside. So between the golden autumn leaves and the first winter chill, as soon as we’re done with the vine harvest, we must get our strength back and be ready for a new adventure: the olive harvest.

Pretty much like every other year, we start picking olives in our farm, around the mid of October, and just before the first chills of November. Anciently it was used to wait for the olives to be fully mature before harvesting. But the weather wasn’t always merciful with crops in late autumn, so to protect them from the early frosts, over the years people have traditionally developed the custom that we all know today, to harvest olives earlier: before they are fully ripe.

olio-novo-tuscan-olive-harvest

This tradition, has become an essential part of our territory’s reputation worldwide, for it has given us a unique product of excellence: “l’olio novo” toscano (the freshly pressed Tuscan extravirgin olive oil). Unique because the chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the PDO extravirgin olive oil are mostly related to the climate of the growth area, which influences directly the quality of the phenols, the bitterness and sharpness of the taste.

So harvesting olives before they are ripe, means the level of polyphenol they contain is still high. And although, unfortunately for us, that implies a lower quantity of product, it’s actually just what it needs to obtain the perfect contrast of that intense bitter and peppery taste, so typical of the Tuscan extravirgin olive oil. However, the final result for each batch of oil, also depends on many other elements, so much that it’s almost impossible to have two different productions with the same taste, even within the same area.

olive-tree-harvest

As we always do in our farm, harvesting olives turns into a family fun activity. Being a farmer is a rather tough physical effort and any extra hand is always welcome; so traditionally during the olive harvest, close relatives and friends or neighbors from the nearby farms gather to offer their help and spend some lighthearted days together in the open air, enjoying the breathtaking view over the Tuscan hills. Everyone takes part in the process and being able to follow the product from the olive grove to the fork, is really exciting for all.

tuscan-olive-harvest-family-fun

The day starts very early in the morning, when armed with rubber boots, comfy clothes and tools of the trade, we reach our small olive grove and start collecting the greenish-purple little gems. What we love the most about it, is that our family still preserves the tradition from generations, and a day of hard work in the farm, easily turns into a celebration. We love to recreate the old fashioned charm of living in the countryside, just like our grandparents used to: understanding the importance of this moment, giving thanks for nature’s richness and sharing the sweat, the laughter, the food and the wine, until the work is done! My grandfathers used to tell me about their harvest gatherings, describing those moments as the most important in the life of a farmer, for socializing and opening up with others on everyday life, by sharing the labor and the table.

tuscan-olive-harvest-view

Our busy day harvesting olives comes to an end only after sunset, always following nature’s course. Depending on the size of the olive grove, it may take from one day to an entire week to finish, so we store the harvested pods in plastic boxes, or on the floor of a cool and well ventilated room, until we can take them to the mill for the pressing, but usually no longer than 48 hours.

olives-tuscan-extravirgin-oil

The mills in this area are quite a few and larger farms even have their own. We take our harvest to a very old mill nearby, that uses the traditional “cold pressing” process, to obtain the best expression of the extravirgin olive oil. First, olives are washed in cold water, removing as much leaves as possible. All that’s left is being then crushed together by a giant milestone and stored in stainless steel tins.

olive-harvest-fresh-extravirgin-olive-oil

Now this is what we actually call l’olio novo” (the new oil) here in Tuscany! It’s the freshly squeezed, unstrained and unprocessed extravirgin olive oil, that we all go crazy about. It’s the base ingredient for all our traditional cuisine dishes, and worldwide recommended for its well-known promoting nutrients and overall health benefits. We use it in our kitchens everyday: fresh drizzled over a salad, cooked in most dishes, sometimes as a healthy substitute for butter in cakes and even in the pan, for a healthier frying. But when it comes to the fruity, peppery pungent freshly squeezed olive oil, the first thing that comes to mind is “la fettunta” (the greasy slice): the Tuscan traditional, healthiest and most simple dish ever, and the best way to enjoy to the fullest, the amazing flavor of “the new oil”.

tuscan-extravirgin-olive-oil-fresh

As soon as we bring the “green gold” back home, we just can’t help but drizzle it on a piece of Tuscan toasted white bread (unsalted); just like that, nothing else added, no other confounding ingredients, just our own special extravirgin olive oil… and this is when we realize that once again, all the sweat and the hard working was all worth it!

Certaldo’s Sweet Red Onions

In the XIV century, in one of his most famous novels (VI, 10) from The Decameron, Boccaccio wrote:

Certaldo, as you may have heard, is a castle of Val d’ Elsa situated in our county, which, however small it may be, was once inhabited by noblemen and men of substance; and thither, for that he found good pasture there, one of the friars of the order of St. Anthony was long used to resort once a year, to get in the alms bestowed by simpletons upon him and his brethren. His name was Fra Cipolla (Friar Onion) and he was gladly seen there, doubtless due as much to his name, as to other reasons, for thus it was known that the soil of those fields produces onions, that are famous throughout all Tuscany.”

red-onion-certaldo

This is just a small evidence that Certaldo’s red onion, has been known from way back, even before the middle-ages. We’re talking about a slow food presidium and product of excellence of our territory, which you can find in two varieties: the Stantina, a round purplish onion, with succulent flesh that’s best eaten during the summer months, and the Vernina, the bright red and sour tasting type, harvested from the end of August all through the winter season, and symbol of Certaldo.

red-onions-certaldo

But if we look even further back, way prior to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Friar Onion, the red onion had already been adopted as a symbol of the hardworking strong spirit and sweet temper of Certaldo’s inhabitants, and thus represented on the town’s pennant. So it dominated the white side of the two-tier shield, with the motto: “By nature, I am strong yet sweet and everyone here likes me, those who work and those who sit”. However, in 1633, the Priors running the burgh, decided that it was an unworthy crest for their town, and replaced it with a rampant lion. Later, in the XIX century, the city council would have re-established the original crest that you may see today on our town’s flag.

Ancient mural of Certaldo’s first crest, representing the red onion on a two-tier shield – Source: Wikimedia.org

Anyway, don’t expect to come across onions at every corner, when visiting Certaldo. Almost every farmer here grows its own, for their families’ consumption or local trading. So if you’re curious and looking for these sweet red gems, your only chances are the weekly local markets on Wednesday and Saturday, or the annual Sagra della Cipolla (The Onions’ Festival).

Since we are very proud of this marvelous product of our area, we keep the tradition alive, by celebrating it every year, with a week-long festival. It’s being held in the old burgh of Certaldo Alto, every year around the end of August, when our farmers harvest the Vernina type. Every evening, we gather together to taste the exquisite dishes prepared with the red onion, following ancient recipes that have been passed down through generations. There are people that live here, sitting together with others that came from different counties, or even tourists; banqueting, enjoying the good food and lots of Chianti wine from the local producers, accompanied by theater plays or themed performances.

red-onion-dish-food

Keeping the old recipes and traditions alive is the main purpose of this event, but we also like to look forward to the future generations. So on the second-last day, the festival hosts a food competition between the town’s quarters, which anticipates The Calambur: Certaldo’s medieval Palio, due to take place a few weeks later. During the food competition, every quarter has to come up with a new and creative dish, made with red onions. A committee made by people of the public gets to taste and decide on the best recipe. This year’s competition is not going to be a simple one, as they have to create a desert! I bet you’ve never thought about onions for desert, but let me tell you that you might just be surprised by the genius recipes and mixture of flavors that these people have come up with, over the years.

They’ve gone from making the ordinary soup, pasta and meat dishes with the red onions, to pickling, canning, making jam and jelly, adding them to chutneys, sweet and salted pies and even using them as homeopatic medicine, following ancient remedies left down by our grand-grand-parents. Practically, if you love red onions like we do, you can do just about anything with them!

At the Cooking School we make our most famous -handmade- Certaldo’s Red Onion Jam. It’s a family tradition, that has been taken forward for generations. It has a bitter-sweet taste and pairs perfectly with local pecorino cheese and salami, or Giuseppina’s special pork tenderloin in old-style dry marinade… to die for!

So if all this onion talking has captured your curiosity and you might want to try some onions for desert, here’s a special treat for you. It has been created and shared by a friend of mine and I’m telling you: if you’re into onions, you have to try this one!

caramelized-red-onions-sweet-pie-walnuts

red-onions-wine-caramelized

Did we get you mouth-watering yet? Then here’s the recipe for you!

Red wine caramelized onions & dark chocolate tartlets

Finely chop 2-3 sweet red onions from Certaldo and add them in a pan with a small piece of unsaltened butter and 2-3 generous tablespoons of muscovado brown sugar. Put it over low heat until softened but not brown. Add a glass of Chianti red wine, a pinch of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, a few cardamom seeds and some pink pepper granules (or any other spices you prefer). Allow the liquid to cook off and the alcohol to evaporate, and then add in a chunk of dark chocolate. Set aside and prepare your favorite recipe of shortcrust pastry. The one you see, had a touch of rustic taste, due to replacing half of the plain white flour with buckwheat flour. Blind-bake your pastry in a preheated oven, let it cool before removing it from the pan and fill each pastry case with the caramelized onions. Add some chopped walnuts and top with goat cheese creme fraiche or vanilla ice-cream. Enjoy!

Have you tried this? Post your photos in the comments below and let us know how it was!

P – for Pasta: fresh, handmade & delicious

Raise your hand if you’re a homemade pasta lover!

One thing I have noticed throughout the years, is that usually making fresh pasta is the favorite part of my cooking classes for our guests. I mean, let’s admit it, everybody loves the italian-style fresh pasta, and if you’re visiting Italy, pasta is one of the reasons why you’re here! So delicious, savory and somewhat chewy, fresh pasta can be complemented with almost everything from cheese to vegetables, meat, fish and even chocolate! Plus, if cleverly accompanied by the right wine, it makes the perfect Italian meal.

It’s been decreed one of the healthiest and most nourishing dishes worldwide, as part of the mediterranean diet, so why be limited to just eating pasta at the restaurant every once in a while, when you can make it from scratch at home, whenever you wish.

Now, I know from my experience that cooking a dish of fresh pasta could sound rather intimidating for those who’ve never tried before, or have only seen it on TV. But I have some good news for you all, and according to my experience again, I can guarantee you that even a ten-year-old can do this, and you’ll never go back to buying fresh pasta again.

fresh-pasta-handmade-ravioli

There’s something magic about making pasta at home the old way, that no one has yet managed to figure out. I myself have been doing it for years now, and every time I still have fun just like the old days.

It could be the marvel of feeling the dough coming together between your hands, or maybe the relaxing process of kneading and shaping, but as soon as you get your hands on and start doing it, you’d never want to stop. Then as you go, your fantasy gets lighten up and you begin experimenting all different kind of shapes and fillings for your dough, and before you know it, you find yourself inviting your friends over for a meal and getting all the compliments and “aaaw”s and “oooh”s for your fresh Italian-style dishes.

It can get really fun and become a social activity to share with your kids too; and don’t worry about the flour dust, streaked aprons and flaky bits of dough crusted on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t have to be a demanding work, so don’t loose heart if you don’t get it the first time. Just go for it and then keep trying. All you need is “an open heart and a positive attitude”, as my son Luca always says to our guests.

pasta-fresh-handmade-flour

If you google fresh pasta you’ll find loads of recipes and every one will be different from the others, because every family has its own tradition when it comes to making pasta. So my intention isn’t just to give you one more fresh pasta recipe, but rather some helpful tips that I always share during my cooking classes.

My guests always appreciate the little tricks and tips I reveal and become more confident as they go, letting loose and having so much fun, which in the end, is the main purpose of this experience, don’t you agree?

So what’s really important is to have the right type of flour. My fail-proof recipe is based on the high-protein, finely milled “00” wheat flour, but if you have issues finding it, you can just go with the plain flour, or mix 2 parts of it with 1 part of semolina flour: this will add that slightly rougher texture that’ll help seasonings stick better to your pasta.

On a wooden or marble counter, start building a so-called “fountain” and break the eggs right in the middle, making sure they are well contained by the flour around them. Then add just a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of extravirgin olive oil. Use a fork to break the eggs and start mixing them reaaally slow, keeping everything inside the flour fountain, until everything is fully incorporated and you get a smooth uniform texture.

fresh-pasta-egg-flour

Now here comes the fun part! I know in modern times you may be used to getting things done quickly and with an extra help from your stand mixer, but kneading by hand is another story. It really makes you feel the dough coming together and it somehow connects you to the whole process. All you have to do is press and push with your wrist, then fold the dough over and again press and push. Just go ahead and knead it like this until it’s smooth and firm, it’ll take no more than 10-12 minutes.

kneading-fresh-pasta-handmade

Using hands gives you the chance to check when your pasta dough is ready – if you feel it’s still sticky, just dust the counter with more flour and keep kneading until firm and dry.

Another important step in making pasta, is to give your dough the necessary time to relax and loose elasticity; that’ll keep it from shrinking or pull back as you stretch it, making it easier for you to roll it flat and shape it. Let’s say about 10 minutes at room temperature, covered by a cotton cloth, should be enough. This’ll also give you the time to reorder the kitchen counter and prepare the pasta machine for shaping, or get the filling ready if you’re into making filled-pasta.

pasta-machine-handmade-fresh

Common forms of fresh pasta have long shapes, such as tagliatelle, fettuccine, spaghetti, linguine or our specialty Tuscan pici, flat shapes such as maltagliati, or sheets for lasagna, short shapes like orecchiette, cavatelli, farfalle, trofie and filled or stuffed shapes such as cannelloni or ravioli, cappelletti and tortellini.

Of course Italy has a very deep-rooted tradition for pasta dishes, and that is why every region has its own traditional pasta shapes and names, that can be totally different from the common ones you are used to. I always suggest to search for and taste the local and regional specialties while visiting any part of Italy, because you’ll never find the same dish cooked alike from one place to another.

pasta-shapes-long-short-flat

Cutting the pasta in the desired shape is also an important part of the process, as you have to pay attention to spread it as thinly as possible and always keep some flour handy, so you won’t get a sticky bundle instead of your tagliatelle nest… I always say to my guests, we want them to be fluffy, fluffy, fluffy, it makes them laugh a lot, but in the end is the one thing they remember the most. So to get that, you need to sprinkle some flour over the shaped pasta and then jiggle it with your hands.

pasta-fresh-handmade

When making filled pasta like ravioli, the most important trick is to press the edges well with your fingertips or a fork to seal the dough, so they won’t open while boiling. And of course, flour again to prevent them from sticking together when cooked.

If you’re not cooking pasta immediately, just let it dry on a baking sheet for a few minutes, sprinkled with flour, then fold it gently to form the nests. You can let it dry some more and then wrap it up and store in the fridge for no more than 2 days. However, I do advise you to taste it fresh, as you make it.

fresh-pasta-nests

Cooking pasta is another important step of the process, as you need to pay attention to the time: it will only take 5-7 minutes to cook fresh pasta, unlike the dried one, which needs considerably more boiling. Dip your shaped pasta into a pot of plentiful salted boiling water and add just a touch of olive oil, so the strands won’t stick together. For fresh filled pasta, always use a gentle flame and keep the water simmering instead of boiling, so your ravioli won’t break.

fresh-pasta-ravioli-cooking

One more thing that I always recommend, is to taste everything you cook; so to make sure it has reached the perfect cooking poin and has a good balance with the salt, just pick a piece of boiling pasta with a fork or some tongs, and give it a bite. Careful though, don’t get burned!

Needless to say that pasta is at its best when cooked “al dente”, so as soon as you feel it’s tender but still firm when bitten, just drain it. At this point, you should keep the sauce or chosen condiment on hand, because pasta needs to be seasoned and stir-fry immediately.

Now all you need is your family and friends gathered around the table and a good glass of wine to go with your wonderful fresh homemade pasta. Enjoy!

S – for Spring and Sprouts

How do we know its springtime here in Tuscany? Just saying “springtime is here” is dull and a little out-of-date, don’t you think?

almond-tree-flowers

Imagine yourself dozing in the warm sunshine, blessed by a breeze under a blooming almond tree, on the bright green grass carpet covering the hills of the outlying countryside of Certaldo; the small vibrant daisies, primroses and violets slowly popping out here and there, filling the air with their delighting scent, while birds’ and bees’ is the only buzz you can perceive around you. Can you picture yourself immersed into this fairy Tuscan spring scenery?

tree-spring-flowers-violets

Now, I guess that’s what it takes to describe the arrival of Spring when it comes to nature’s awakening here in Tuscany, but wait! Here at Giuseppina’s Cooking School, we have one more good green reason to say “Yay springtime!

It’s when the wild asparagus sprouts pop out. The delicious and tender weed that grows abundant in the Tuscan countryside, mostly in arid environments, on open fields that haven’t been farmed in a while, or wherever there’s a cluster of trees. Its unique taste has been accompanying our great Tuscan culinary tradition since ages, and its multitude of uses in the kitchen have been passed on through generations in our family.

wild-asparagus

However, don’t get tricked by the name: wild asparagus sprouts are nothing like their cultivated peers, the common asparagus you can easily find at the greengrocers’. In fact, unlike the thick and woody sprouts of the common asparagus, the wild one is almost as thin as a grass blade, with a slightly bitter and pungent taste. Grandma’ always said “where there’s one there are hundreds”, and truly it is so, as wild asparagus grows rampant in big thick clusters, that we usually call “asparagiaie”.

field-wild-asparagus

As you may already know, we are passionate about keeping our traditions alive, so this is the time of the year, when we’re very likely to gather on Sundays, put on some rubber boots and go hiking in the woods, in search of this nature’s delicacy. Sometimes we even have fun making up a competition and whoever fills up their basket first wins, leaving the looser to do the grunt work, like cleanse and cook the spoils for all of us once home. It’s a really fun way to spend some time with family or friends, and bring home freshly picked goods for a meal.

But what to do with a great amount of such an exquisiteness, you might be wondering; well, as much wild sprouts we might have gathered in our baskets, it’s hardly ever enough. We enjoy this bounty in many different ways, from eating them raw – freshly picked – or just seared, with a drizzle of olive oil, black pepper and salt, to dipping them into poached eggs; combine them with the classic pasta, and a generous sprinkle of Parmesan shavings or add them to a beaten egg or two, and with the right seasoning enjoy an exquisite Italian omelet with just a splash of fine balsamic vinegar.

wild-asparagus-pan-fried

We could say there are as many recipes to experiment, as the sprouts of an asparagus cluster. However, we kept the best for last, because there is one particular dish that has been in our family for decades, and keeps inspiring us: it’s the smooth, creamy risotto con gli asparagi – Giuseppina’s signature dish when it comes to wild asparagus – and the reason we go crazy about wild sprouts hunting every year! Believe me, once you’ve had a taste of this beautiful spring dish, you won’t ever get enough of it. It’s nothing like the same old risotto you’re used to, it’s just so scented and delicate, yet distinctive and savory. Giuseppina holds tight to her family tradition recipe of course, and you can only experience this live in her kitchen; but there’s one hint about it I’m going to share with you though: I know you may find this unusual, but she never adds wine to simmer her wild asparagus risotto! Curious isn’t it?!

C – for Carnevale

… and other ancient Tuscan traditions

Semel in anno licet insanire” (once a year, it is allowed to act like crazy) – our ancestors used to say on February, during the most bizarre and outgoing celebration of the year.

The Carnival season is a tradition that we are carrying on since medieval times, when jesters used to run through the village, encouraging people – who were then oppressed by the system and used to live in extreme poverty – to parody the values of the society they lived in, and the authority of the severe political and religious commandments, by inverting the roles and creating the Backwards World, where they could disobey the rules and become whatever they wanted for a day, wearing the “clothes” of the character they were joking on, living in redundancy and acting like fools in the cheapest and most rumorous possible way.

MedievalCarnival

This rebellion would help them prepare for the forthcoming Lent season – the austere 40 days of Lent during which they had to abstain from eating meat and follow other ascetic practices, in order to purify their bodies and souls before the Easter festivity. In fact, the word Carnival seems to have Latin origins, as “carne levare” or “carnelevarium” means “giving up on meat”, a practice apparently dated back to the Romans era.

In order to be able to carry on such a commitment of great sacrifice, the Middle Age people would celebrate the Carnival not only by joking and feasting around, but mostly by overindulging on substantial and greasy meals, pints of wine and the sweetest desserts.

In Tuscany we are very bound to our ancient traditions, and fortunately some of them are still an important part of our cultural heritage. When the Carnival festivity comes up, local bakeries fill up their counters with greedy sweet and fried holiday treats, together with the traditional Tuscan dessert, which to this day has kept its original Renaissance recipe. We are talking about the Berlingozzo (berlinˈgɔttso), a soft, moist and flavored donut cake, with one of the quickest and simplest recipes ever, just like our grandmothers used to do it!

This carnival dessert disguised as a breakfast donut, used to be served on Fat Thursday, which in Florence was the day known as Berligaccio. This funny word, was the name of a fifteen-century Tuscan mask, used in Florence during Fat Thursday, and represented by a mascot carried out in effigy through the city’s streets, among the loudest shouts, most colored dances and funny acting.

Berlingaccio Firenze

Just like “Carnevale”, it seems to have a Latin origin as well, from the word “berlengo” which means “table”; this takes us back to the feasting and overindulging tradition of the Medieval period.

We also have a verb descended from it, that you can easily find in most of Boccaccio’s tales, as a proof of the ancient origins of this Tuscan custom. It’s “berlingare” and it means to chatter, or to blather about things with no sense, right after having had a substantial meal and several pints of wine. Giovanni Boccaccio, Certaldo’s local and most famous Late Medieval novelist, poet and humanist, used to make great use of this verb in his works, mostly when talking about or describing a female character, as he would associate it to women’s being so gossipy about everything.

lasciamo stare l’alte e grandi millanterie ch’ella fa quando berlinga coll’altre femmine”() “Ma solamente per voglia di berlingare (…) di che ella è vaghissima, sì ben dir le pare” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) di Giovanni Boccaccio

 “forget about her great bragging about (herself) she does when she chatters with other females (…) But only for the wish to chatter is she famous, even if she thinks she speaks out right” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Tuscan Berlingozzo

berlingozzo toscano

This year’s Fat Thursday is approaching, and after telling you all about this special time of the year here in Tuscany, we couldn’t just leave you there craving for a taste of some Tuscan Carnival treats. As we’re preparing for our traditional feast – next 23th of February – here in Certaldo, we want to share with you the joy of preparing and having a byte of this typical Tuscan dessert. So let’s not “chatter” any further and come to our nice and cheerful donut.

It’s all about a couple of fresh egg yolks, beaten with some sugar until pale, mixed with lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some extravirgin olive oil and a nice cup of Vin Santo – now this is the secret right here!

berlingozzo toscano

We like our Carnival desserts to be sweet and flavored, but our ancestors didn’t have any artificial flavors at the time; they simply used the home-made products they had, and that’s just what makes it so special. So following the ancient customs, we add in our Tuscan traditional home-made directly-from-our-vineyard Vin Santo: a type of italian dessert wine, usually made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, hanged and left to dry out on racks, in a warm and well ventilated area. If you ever come to Certaldo or anywhere near in Tuscany, you can have a taste of this marvelous sweet wine, together with the Cantuccini – our traditional home-made almond cookies, served as a dessert, at the end of your meal. It’s one of our most important landmarks around here, don’t miss it!

berlingozzo toscano

At this point, we just pour in the flour, mixed to some potato starch and a pinch of salt, together with a bit of baking powder. Then gently incorporate the beaten egg whites and pour the dough into a donut shaped baking tin, and into the oven, to bake for about a half an hour… Just enough time for us to sit and sip a nice glass of Vin Santo, while preparing our mask and costumes for the feast. Cheers!

Ingredients: berlingozzo toscano

for a 20 cm. diameter baking tin

2 fresh eggs

75gr. Sugar

1 lemon

50 ml. Vin Santo

50 ml. Extra virgin olive oil

150 gr. Flour

25 gr. Potato starch

6gr. Baking powder

1 pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 170 C degrees

Bake for about 25-30 minutes

Enjoy!